American Literature: The Modernist Movement

Literary Modernism
represented the struggle that many had with the way that new ideas and discoveries challenged their previous lives during a time when tradition didn’t seem so important anymore.

This artistic movement grew strength first in Europe in the early 20th century, eventually growing in the United States. It was fueled by domestic shifts (increase in city life, technology and wealth, for example) as well as changes on an international scale (like World War I). As this stable structure of a strong, patriotic nation began to weaken, so did the writing of the time reflect the uncertainty of its citizens. Growth, prosperity, fear, war, death, money, materialism, psychology and disillusionment all contributed to the creation of a modern literary movement in the United States. One that was very much a reflection of the unease of a people who felt that the old rules and the old ways of living and thinking were no longer relevant.

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Sherwood Anderson
Wrote “Winesburg, Ohio”, a classic in the post-war literary community.

It breaks from traditional form in that it is not one continuous novel, but rather 22 short stories. Anderson also creates a unique work here in his choice to focus on plain prose that gives insight into character emotion rather than creating a plot-focused work. Published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is emblematic of that shift from pre-war ideals to post-war disillusionment.

The Lost Generation
that group of men and women who came of age during World War I and who felt disillusioned in this unfamiliar post-war world.

Ernest Hemingway
led a fascinating and complicated life that informed many of his major novels and short stories, including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway was part of a group of American expatriates who spent a lot of time in Paris, known as ‘The Lost Generation. The Lost Generation included other prominent American authors, namely Gertrude Stein. Though his life ended tragically in 1961, his novels and short stories are considered some of the greatest in American literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
a novelist and short story writer closely associated with the Jazz Age and Modernism. He often wrote of socialites in the post-World War I era. His most notable novel is The Great Gatsby. Other novels include The Beautiful and Damned, Tender Is the Night, The Love of the Last Tycoon, and This Side of Paradise.

Gertrude Stein
Widely assumed to be the Leader of the “Lost Generation” group of writers that met together in Paris.

John Dos Passos
best known for his U.S.A.

trilogy, which consists of the novels: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money.

T. S.


an American Poet. But became a British citizen later on in life. wins the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. most famous works were ‘The Waste Land’, ‘The Love Song of J.

Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The Hollow Men’, and his final masterpiece: ‘Four Quartets.’ They’re four poems, ‘Burnt Norton,’ ‘East Coker,’ ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding.’ Fun Fact: wrote a book called ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ that actually got turned into the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical ‘Cats.’

William Faulkner
perhaps the most celebrated Southern novelist. His novels, which are typical of the Modernist style, feature varying, complex writing techniques, including stream of consciousness, time shifts and multiple narrators. His most notable works include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!

John Steinbeck
a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, known for works including Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and Travels with Charley.

One of his most famous novels is The Grapes of Wrath. often wrote about migrant farmers, labor struggles and similar stories of the poor and downtrodden. He also wrote with stark realism and a deep appreciation of the natural world. A recurring setting for his works is Monterey County in Northern California, where he grew up and which he considered a kind of paradise.

Eugine O’Neill
left an indelible mark on the American theater. His plays covered expressionism, racism, class and much more. They were mostly tragedies, but then, he lived a difficult life. Alcohol played a big role, but he managed to produce a multitude of significant works despite his obstacles. Among his many notable works are The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

E. A. Robinson
One of the first Modernist poets, he reacted to the drastic changes in the world by writing more pessimistic poetry. He (and many others) also let go of the previous expectations about meter and rhyme, instead using free verse. (known as America’a Poet Laureate of Unhappiness)

a subset of Modernism that focuses on simply described images and little more. In Imagist poetry, the writer does not talk about the themes behind the image

Ezra Pound
one of the founders of Imagism, said that there were three tenets, or rules, to writing Imagist poetry.

Ezra Pound’s 3 rules of Imagist poetry
1.Direct treatment of the subject. That is, the poem should deal directly with what’s being talked about, not try to use fancy words and phrases to talk about it.2.Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation. Use as few words as possible.3.

Compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in the rhythm of the metronome. In other words, create new rhythms instead of relying on the old, boring ones.

H. D.

(Hilda Doolittle)

wrote under her initials, was one of the founding members of Imagism. She was once engaged to Ezra Pound, but they didn’t end up getting married. Even so, he helped launch her career and often saw her as one of the best Imagist poets.

Amy Lowell
an American poet who quickly became Imagism’s leader. Was a smart businesswoman and talented poet. She was born in Massachusetts and supported other poets as well as herself.

Edgar Lee Masters
a modernist poet from the 20th century who wrote a famous group of over 200 poems called The Spoon River Anthology. These poems were told by fictional characters from the fictional town of Spoon River.

They were told after the characters’ deaths, and most of them reveal secrets or regrets that no one knew while they were alive.

William Carlos Wiliams
Modernist poets decided to do away with pompous phrases and extra descriptions. They saw a new way to express their ideas in the simple language of everyday writing. He took this a step further. While his peers were writing with simplified, but still intellectual, language, he decided to write in the language of everyday, American speech. He also habitually forces the reader to think and interpret his poetry, instead of just saying the meaning outright.

The poems ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ both highlight these key elements of his poetry.

E. E.


a poet who revolutionized the way poems were laid out on the page through the use of unusual punctuation and capitalization. His use of free verse helped him demonstrate important concepts in his poetry. ‘Buffalo Bill’s/defunct’ is a famous poem about mortality, and it is laid out on the page in an unusual and meaningful way. Meanwhile, ‘9.’ is about love and how natural it is.

In it, he uses onomatopoeia to help get his point across.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
a poet who changed the way the world viewed women. She used her poetry to encourage women to break out of the role society set for them and openly talked about things that women weren’t supposed to. Her famous poem ‘First Fig’ celebrates a life of partying, and her sonnet ‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed’ records the thoughts and feelings of a woman who has had many lovers. Both of these topics were shocking at the time, and even though her poems use traditional verse, their content makes them modernist poems.

Wallace Stevens
a modernist poet whose poetry was influenced by many different forms and ideas. His most famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ can be viewed as a series of haiku-like poems, as an imagist poem, and as a poem about the philosophy of perspectivism.

Hart Crane
took Modernist style and applied it to a romantic, optimistic view.

His book The Bridge combined the style of epic and lyric poetry and presented the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol for manmade structure that could bridge the disparate parts of society and save humankind from the problems inherent in modern life. It was a response to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which likened life in modern cities to life in a wasteland. Instead of taking the pessimistic view of Eliot, this poem saw all the problems of modern society but also presented hope.

Robert Frost
a famous American modernist poet. He used traditional elements in his poems, but all of them, especially the famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken,’ also include modernist elements.

The things that make ‘The Road Not Taken’ modernist include simple language, the fact that the poem is unclear and the not-quite-happy mood.

Confessional Poetry
emerged in the 1950s and 60s and features open exploration of highly personal subject matter. Well known poets are Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and W.D.


Sylvia Plath
one of the most highly regarded early writers of the style. Her work, including poems like ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus,’ talks in frank terms about her suicidal thoughts, troubled relationship with her father and other highly personal issues.

Modernist Poetry
Before the Industrial Revolution and World War I, poetry was mostly optimistic and used images of nature. It also had a set meter and rhyme scheme. Starting with E.A.

Robinson, the Modernist poets reacted to the drastic changes in their world by writing more pessimistic poetry. Many of them also let go of the previous expectations about meter and rhyme.

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